Cycling is a low-impact activity available to almost everybody. But, what if you have a knee injury? Or arthritis? Is biking good for your knees?
The short answer is: Yes!
Cycling is a safe form of exercise to keep your knees healthy and strong. You can keep your range of motion, recover from an injury, or strengthen your muscles with cycling.
But, as with any physical activity, cycling can also cause knee pain. This is often due to errors that are 100% under your control.
Having said that, I’m here to tell you the top 3 causes of knee pain while cycling. I’ll even throw in tips on how you can fix each one of them right now.
Let’s start with why is cycling good for the knees:
4 reasons why biking is great for your knees
1) Exercise with less stress on your knee joints
Cycling is a low-impact exercise. It provides several health benefits while limiting the impact on weight-bearing joints. These include your knees and hips.
As opposed to running, your knees won’t have to absorb impact from the ground when biking. This also means you can reap cardio benefits without compromising your joints.
Not only that but you can easily change the setup of your bike to reduce the stress on your knees even more.
This entails adjusting some parts, like your saddle (seat) or handlebars (more on this later).
2) Keeps your joint cartilage healthy
Exercising keeps your joints healthy for longer. It can reduce the degenerative changes that come with aging as well.
The even better news is that exercise doesn’t have to be intense to be beneficial. In fact, low- or moderate-intensity cycling can keep your joints lubricated and healthy. (1)
3) It’s a safe way to maintain and increase your range of motion
Your first goal after a severe knee injury or surgery is regaining your normal range of motion. Pedaling a bike helps you do that.
The movement involves a degree of knee bending and straightening. This helps you maintain, if not improve your range of motion.
The repetitions also increase blood flow to your injury. And, it works out your leg muscles without too much stress on the joint.
These reasons make cycling a safe form of exercise for almost any knee injury. They’re also reasons why you’ll see a stationary and/or recumbent bicycle in most PT centers.
4) Your starting point doesn’t matter
Cycling is so easy to incorporate into most lifestyles. So easy, in fact, that you can enjoy its benefits regardless of where you’re at health-wise.
For example, you can use bikes as part of (3):
- A rehabilitation plan.
- A strength training and/or cardio workout.
- To promote weight loss.
- To improve your cardiovascular health.
There are different kinds of bikes that offer different benefits as well.
- Stationary bikes are good for people who don’t know how to ride a bicycle. These bikes help people with knee osteoarthritis to manage their symptoms as well. (2)
- Recumbent bikes can lower the barrier of entry for exercising in certain populations. Like the elderly or back pain sufferers, for instance. They are a good option, too, if you want to multitask while exercising.
- Air bikes are a solid strengthening workout for your leg.
- Commuter bikes add more movement to your day.
But, as with any exercise, cycling can cause knee pain if you’re not careful.
3 common causes of knee pain while cycling (and how to fix them)
First of all, anterior knee pain is the most common type of knee problem among cyclists. (4)
And, while there are several things that can cause knee pain while riding a bike, most of them have to do with things that are under your control. These include:
- How the bike fits you.
- The intensity of the workout.
- The strength of your legs.
- How prepared your body is for the ride.
This just means that paying attention to a few key details can help prevent knee pain, such as:
1) Poor-fitting bike
This is often overlooked because we think that our bodies should fit the bike. But, it should be the other way. The good news is that it’s easy to tweak several parts of most bikes.
Repositioning these should help the bike fit your body:
- Saddle: The seat of the bike. You can move it up, down, forward, or backward.
- Crank arms: The levers attached to the pedals. You can position them in a shorter or longer length.
- Handlebar: The steering control of the bike. You can move it up or down.
- Cleats: A device attached to the sole of your cycling shoes. It clips your feet to the pedal, keeping them in place. You can rotate them inward or outward.
Repositioning each part to fit you can take some trial and error. If you don’t want to do it on your own, consider taking your bike to a professional.
But, if you want to do it on your own, here’s a general guide:
How to fix an ill-fitting bike
If you’re seating with your knees pointed outward, the saddle may be too low. Raise it until you’re cycling with your knees pointed straight or slightly outward.
If you have to rock your hips from side to side while cycling, the saddle may be too high. Move it down 1 or 2 inches and try pedaling again. Change the height until the lateral movement of your hips stops.
This will prevent pain on the sides of your knees as well as back pain.
The same tip works if you’re overreaching the pedals. That posture may put too much strain on your calf muscles and hamstrings, causing pain in the back of your knee.
If the crank arms are too long, your knee may have to work harder in each cycle. This can cause anterior knee pain. (4)
The ideal crank length will depend on your height. Check the sizing chart of the brand to make sure the crank arm is adequate for you.
In theory, handlebars should be at the same level as the saddle. That’s a comfortable position for most cyclists.
If it’s not properly placed, it may cause pain on your wrists and/or your back. It can also cause knee pain due to the way your back and hips work in that position.
Cleats should sit under the ball of your foot because it’s what you should be using to push the pedal. If you’re pedaling with the arch of your feet or your toes, it might cause foot and knee issues.
You may have to position the cleat a little inward or outward depending on the anatomy of your foot. You can also try spacing the pedals out if your feet rub the crank.
2) Training errors
There are several training errors that increase your risk of knee osteoarthritis and other injuries. The good news is that they’re easily preventable.
Training errors are a leading cause of overuse knee injuries in cyclists. – Asplund, 2004
A common error is not addressing any underlying leg weaknesses. Leg and hip muscles that aren’t strong enough for the ride can cause injury.
Another error is doing too much too soon. A sudden increase in training intensity or frequency can cause pain. Not resting enough can also lead to injuries.
Also, a common error is not warming up enough. Your body needs to prepare for the effort, so don’t skip it!
How to fix pain due to training errors
Avoid training errors in the first place. A good rule to follow is increasing the distance and/or intensity by 10% each week. (4)
You may feel like you can do more, but your body needs time to adapt to the new stimulus. This little bit of patience will save you time and pain in the future.
Also, make sure to address any underlying muscle weaknesses. Strengthen your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves with other exercises as well.
And, about the warm-up, some research says that the specificity of the warm-up may be more important than its duration.
Meaning, you might not need 20 whole minutes. It can be enough to do a low-intensity version of the movements you’ll do in the workout.
But, if you already have knee pain due to overtraining, try this:
- Decrease your training frequency or intensity by 10% while you recover.
- Use a recumbent bike to reduce the strain on your body.
- Focus on rest. Sleep +7 hours each night, eat nutritious foods, and manage stress.
- Wear a knee sleeve to reduce swelling and pain. Try an open sleeve if you have anterior knee pain.
If after 1-2 weeks of doing this you still have knee pain, please look for medical advice. Go to a physical therapist and have him/her check what’s going on.
P.S.: We can help you find a PT in your area if you need one.
3) Low cadence
Low cadence in cycling is between 50 and 60 repetitions per minute (RPM). This forces your knee to work harder. (5)
This can be beneficial if it’s part of a smart training program. But, if not, it can trigger knee pain.
The general consensus is that an optimal cadence for most riders is between 70-90 RPM. But, this will still depend on your experience, strength, and aerobic capacity. (5)
If you’re below 70 RPM and have knee pain, try increasing your cadence.
How to choose the right bike?
If you want to see whether you like cycling or not, try the recumbent or stationary bikes in a gym. Or a spinning class.
If you already know you want a bike, consider the following:
What surface will you be riding on?
This is the main factor to consider before buying a bike:
- For paved roads – Road or hybrid bikes are best.
- For gravel and/or mountain – Mountain, hybrid, touring, or gravel bikes.
- For dirt roads – Mountain bikes.
An electric bike is a good option if you’re planning to use it for long periods of time.
What’s the intended use?
If you want to commute with a bicycle, consider a folding bike. These are lightweight and are perfect if you have limited storage.
Cargo bikes are best if you need to transport stuff – or kids – constantly. A cruiser bicycle is best for leisure cycling. Hybrid bikes are versatile and adaptable to most terrains.
Do you have previous health issues?
Recumbent and stationary bikes require less effort on your part. Indoor cycling, in general, might be best if you’re recovering from knee surgery. Also, they’re great for managing knee arthritis. (2, 6)
They’re also a good option for people that need aerobic exercise to manage health issues. Like high blood pressure, for example. (3)
Related: Can you do spinning with a bad knee?
Which is better, indoor or outdoor cycling?
From a workout standpoint, both are great options.
Indoor cycling is best for people that want motivation in a group setting. It requires less skill, as you don’t have to navigate through traffic, an open road, or a mountain. It can be more convenient for some people as well.
But, it can get boring fast.
Outdoor cycling can be more stimulating. But, it requires more skill than indoor cycling. It also needs special gear: the bike itself, clothes, shoes, helmet, etc. which can be expensive to some people.
Is walking or biking better for the knees?
For healthy people, there’s not much difference when it comes to health benefits. Choose the one you enjoy the most.
But, for people with severe knee injuries, a stationary bike may be best during the initial recovery since it causes less stress on the knee joint compared to walking. (6)
Is cycling good for arthritic knees?
Yes! Riding a bike can help reduce pain and improve function in people with knee arthritis. (2)
But, it’s best to do this under the supervision of a healthcare provider. This will prevent injuries or setbacks.
Conclusion: Is riding a bike good for your knees?
Yes, cycling can be great for your knees!
This low-impact exercise can help you recover from an injury or improve your overall fitness. Given the right training program, of course.
Training errors and a poor bike fit are common causes of knee pain. The good news is that you can prevent them easily:
- Make sure the bike fits you.
- Rest and don’t push yourself.
And, if you have previous health issues like high blood pressure, check with your doctor first before starting any exercise regime.
- Roberts, Harry M et al. “The effect of vigorous running and cycling on serum COMP, lubricin, and femoral cartilage thickness: a pilot study.” European journal of applied physiology vol. 116,8 (2016): 1467-77. doi: 10.1007/s00421-016-3404-0
- Luan, Lijiang et al. “Stationary cycling exercise for knee osteoarthritis: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” Clinical rehabilitation vol. 35,4 (2021): 522-533. doi: 10.1177/0269215520971795
- Oja, P et al. “Health benefits of cycling: a systematic review.” Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports vol. 21,4 (2011): 496-509. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2011.01299.x
- Asplund, Chad, and Patrick St Pierre. “Knee pain and bicycling: fitting concepts for clinicians.” The Physician and sportsmedicine vol. 32,4 (2004): 23-30. doi: 10.3810/psm.2004.04.201
- Reed, Robert M et al. “Determining optimal cadence for an individual road cyclist from field data.” European journal of sport science vol. 16,8 (2016): 903-11. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2016.1146336
- D’Lima, Darryl et al. “Knee joint forces: prediction, measurement, and significance.” Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Part H, Journal of engineering in medicine vol. 226,2 (2012): 95-102. doi: 10.1177/0954411911433372